Three years ago, these school children from Mahawilachchiya, a remote farming settlement 40km away from Anuradhapura, would not have believed that they would be having their own website by the year 2000.
Their mentor, an unusually enterprising young English teacher called Nandasiri Wanninayaka, was having more basic things in mind – how to procure the photo copy paper on which his students produced their English medium journal “Horizon.”
A reader of my articles, he came to Colombo and met me. The resulting article about him and his students was a turning point. The U. S. Embassy provided them with a computer. With his good luck, came a familiar tale of woe. The computer was given to the school where Wanninayaka was teaching. The result was a typical tale of bureaucratic meddling, ignorance and professional jealousy. Wanninayaka quit in disgust, leaving the computer idling at school, and his students seemed to be depressingly back to square one.
The luck was not out, however. Donald and Bhadra Gaminitilake, an expatriate Sri Lankan couple living in Japan, arrived back home just then. They had read Mahawilachchiya story from the Internet. Once they heard about Mahawilachchiya story, they decided to help. Together with Mahen Kariyawasam, a director at the computer firm East West, they gave a computer and a printer to Wanninayaka and his students.
It has proved to be a lasting bond. The Gaminitilakes have ‘adapted’ these remote village children as their own and continue to help them in various ways. Donald Gaminitillake, a manager of graphics and printing in Japan, decided to start a website on behalf of what has now become the ‘Horizon School.” It has proved to be a huge leap forward from a stenciled news sheet.
I joined the Gaminitillakes in what was their fifth visit to Mahawilachchiya, a settlement bordered by sprawling jungle and guarded day and night against the threat of LTTE attacks. The school is based in a cramped room in Wanninayaka’s modest village home.
These students ages ranging from six to sixteen, have become incredibly computer savvy. In addition they are capable dancers, as proved by their annual musical concert.
Wanninayaka, an amateur keyboard player, loves to play the electronic organ during these occasions. On an improvised open-air stage, his students displayed an amazing repertoire of folk and modern dances, ranging from Indian to Arabic to Western pop.
Gathered at this occasion were an unusually large group of outsiders. To begin with, there was the first generation of benefactors – the Gaminitilakes and Mahen Kariyawasam (Sanjeewa Wickramanayake, the other figure from East West who figured in giving the first computer and printer ‘Horizon’ was not present.)
Added to this group was a new benefactor. Thushara Wijerathna is a young computer programmer for Microsoft in the United States. Having heard about Wanninayaka and his students, he too, decided to extend a helping hand while here on holiday. To that end, he was in Mahavilachchiya too, along with his wife, infant child and parents. Wijerathna offered Rs. 15,000/= in cash to the Horizon School.
The next step is to build a computer room, and each contribution will help realize that dream. Equally important (and perhaps more so) are the emotional bonds – these students now feel that there are people in the big city (which most of them hadn’t seen until the Gaminitillakes arranged a visit last year) who care about them.
This is very important because of the stark divide that exists between city and village in our culture. Anuradhapura is the only city that most people here know of and there are those who haven’t even seen Anuradhapura. Also instances of affluent city people going out of their way to help villagers are unfortunately all too rare in Sri Lanka.
“We must try to bring the city to the village,” says Donald Gaminitillake. The way things are right now, that may sound utopian. But giving a computer to a village and following it up is a perfectly good way to start.